Tuesday, February 26, 2008

SUMMARY: Wilson Center Election Analysis Event 2/25

Yesterday, I attended a fascinating event at the Woodrow Wilson Center where Eric Bjornlund of Democracy International spoke of his observations while monitoring the Pakistani elections last Monday. Also on the panel were Hassan Abbas, a research fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former Pakistani government official, Hasan-Askari Rizvi, the Pakistan scholar at Johns Hopkins' SAIS, and Marvin Weinbaum, the scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute. Bjornlund reported on DI's methodology while in Pakistan in order to ensure the elections were "free and fair" - this included parallel vote tabulations, 272 samples for the 272 elections, and 75 meetings with political parties prior to the elections. The organization deployed two-person teams around the country (there were 38 DI people altogether), they met with local observers, officials and parties, and then shared their observations. Ultimately - DI found that the elections were relatively peaceful, there was no evidence of systematic manipulation, and the people exercised their will. However, the pre-election period was not as rosy, as we all know, since violence and riots wracked the country before election day. Bjornlund also noted the criticisms of the Election Commission prior to the elections - in the commission's effort to redo the voter registration list, a large number - about 15 million - were left off the list. As a result, they tried to augment the list with the voters from 2002, a list that was widely discredited.

The other panel members concentrated their comments mainly on the question - What happens next? Abbas focused on the victory of the ANP in the NWFP. In 2002, he noted, the elections were rigged in favor of the MMA, the religious coalition, an incident we are now aware of due to a confession from a former Pakistani intelligence (ISI) chief who admitted Musharraf told him to manipulate the polls. This time around, five years later, the MMA failed to show any concrete or tangible changes in the province, and were voted out of power in favor of the ANP, a party that stands for Pashtun nationalism. Abbas was optimistic about the future of the new coalition in the Parliament - since both Nawaz and Asif Zardari have been outside the country for 7-8 years and have "learned quite a bit." Moreover, this new coalition will have no impact on the U.S. led war on terror - since the Pakistani army decides that strategy, not the government.

Rizvi also discussed the future of the U.S.-led war on terror with this new government. According to him, Musharraf's continuation in power will create problems for counterterrorism. Therefore, the only viable solution would be for the president to resign voluntarily. The U.S., Rizvi noted, will face more problems Musharraf stays in power than if he steps down. He asserted that this new government should dialogue with the Islamist extremists (i.e., Beitullah Mehsud, see yesterday's post), and thereby isolate those militants unwilling to cooperate the government. Weinbaum further addressed the U.S. presence in the region, and noted the U.S. government has so far failed to appreciate the transition in process in Pakistan. Musharraf, he added, is increasingly irrelevant as this new government becomes solidified. Weinbaum asserted, "The irony is that every time we try to help Musharraf, we make it worse for him."

The event, all together, was an insightful talk on what should happen next in Pakistan. It seemed based on the questions following the panel talk that people are truly interested in where we should go from here - should a relatively moderate coalition government negotiate with extremist elements in the country? Can forces like Tehreek-e-Taliban be tamed? Moreover, what role does and should the United States play in this process? It is obvious that the U.S. has and will always have a strategic interest in the country - therefore, how can we further this interest and at the same time address the anti-American sentiment raging in the country? A great article in today's LA Times, entitled, "Islamists' Loss in Pakistan isn't a U.S. Win," reported that despite secular party wins in the parliamentary elections, Pakistanis are still unlikely to rally behind the U.S.-led war on terror. The news agency added, "To many Pakistanis, the armed confrontation with Islamic radicals remains 'America's war,' one whose cost in blood has been borne by Pakistani troops with little perceived benefit to this country." As a result, the new parties in power are pushing for a political solution to the problem, rather than the oft-used military solution.

The panel discussion, much like a Magic 8 ball, provided an "Outlook Good" depiction of the country's future - do you agree or is that far too simplistic?


reimas said...

"Outlook good" seems like a very diplomatic way of saying "at least the elections happened."

Hopefully the two leading parties won't succumb to stagnant bickering and political brinksmanship, as what has too often taken place in South Asian politics (read Bangladesh, before the current interim government).

If the two parties can avoid this, perhaps the outlook can indeed be “good”; but failure to do so will only create the justification for a Musharraf No. 2 to enter the scene.

Fahad said...

I don't think there is ever justification for the army to enter politics.

That being said, the bickering between the two sides would be very detrimental for the future of Pakistan. It might however be necessary to further Pakistan's democratic evolution.

I would say Outlook Good is quite optimistic--- maybe it should be Outlook Proceed but with Caution.

reimas said...

Fahad, you're right there is no justification for the army to enter politics. I used the term with a tinge of sarcasm. Perhaps "excuse" would have been a better choice of word.

As for US interests in the country, if anything these interests have helped to bolster the military since the Cold War days. Now, same situation different War. US interest in Pakistan is and has always been security centric--until there is a more multidimensional approach to Pakistan from the US (and vice versa) negative impressions will continue to exist on both sides.

Lessons should be learned from India in this regard. As hard as it may be given Pakistan's geographic and strategic location vis-a-vie the "War on Terror", it's leaders should adapt India's foreign policy line: If it's not in our economic interest, fuggedaboutit.

NB said...

Im not sure that dialogue with the militants necessarily means dialogue with Mehsud.

Mehsud is based in South Wazirstan and is from the Mehsud Tribe which has historically had trouble with North Wazirstan and the late Nek Muhammads South Waziris. I think a dialogue with those groups who are open to it would be a good thing provided that the tribal elders can guarantee the deal. Better to marginalize Mehsud within FATA than have to deal with all the tribes, fighting As pathans, under his leadership.

Plus, there are indications that having taken Swat, the Army is preparing for a big push into South Waziristan. Officially charging Mehsud as the BB Assassination mastermind may have been one of the final steps in that regard.

It would be nice if they got Fazlullah too. I hate that guy.